In remembrance of R. McNeill Alexander

31 October 2016 - By: Robin Wootton

R. McNeill Alexander FRS, CBE. 1934-2016

R. McNeill Alexander FRS, CBE

By Robin Wootton, University of Exeter

His many friends in the SEB and elsewhere will have been greatly saddened to hear of the death of R. McNeill Alexander on March 21st, aged 81. Neill, as he was universally known, was born in Lisburn, near Belfast. He read Natural Sciences at Cambridge and continued to a PhD under Sir James Gray. From 1958 he lectured at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, and was appointed Professor of Zoology at Leeds in 1969 where he remained for the rest of his career.

Neill was a legend in his time. If he didn’t actually invent animal biomechanics as a coherent and rigorous discipline (and some might claim he did), he was certainly its most inspirational advocate. His published output was prodigious – over 280 papers, ranging from anemone mesoglea to dinosaur locomotion; the latter being the most widely publicised component of the superb sequence of experimental and theoretical studies on vertebrate terrestrial locomotion by which he is best known. His flair for lateral thinking is particularly illustrated by his realisation that the Froude Number, developed in the 19th century to analyse the motion of ships, could be applied to land vertebrate locomotion over a huge size range and used to predict gaits and speeds of extinct forms.

Nonetheless Neill will probably be most widely remembered by his long series of lucid, entertaining textbooks. A high spot in my own career was the chance to participate in the two day meeting organised in Edinburgh by the SEB in 1999 to mark his retirement. It was an extraordinary occasion: an international gathering of the greats of contemporary biomechanics alongside a horde of respectful younger workers and of awed graduate students, meeting for the first time not just Neill but the authors of most of the standard works on which their own research would build. Speaker after speaker had as their first slide a montage of their battered, much-read copies of Neill’s books, and acknowledged these as the starting point for their own careers. His second, Animal Mechanics (1968), written when he was still at Bangor, was perhaps his most influential: a landmark in biomechanics, and indeed in the history of zoology. By examining animal design and functioning in terms of structural and mechanical engineering, materials science, hydrostatics, surface forces, fluid dynamics and vibration physics, it was in complete contrast to the descriptive morphological and physiological approaches that had previously dominated the literature. Around sixteen other books followed. He was a natural communicator, with a particular flair for finding valid simplifications to complex problems, often illustrating them with models and delightful diagrams. Each new volume brought new insight into some aspects of the field, and was a gift to low-altitude biomechanicists like myself; I felt my teaching undergoing stepwise improvement as every Alexander book appeared. 

Neill was widely honoured in the UK and abroad, gaining his FRS in 1987 and a CBE in 2000, as well as various awards. He was President of the SEB from 1995 to 1997 and of the International Society of Vertebrate Morphologists from 1997 to 2001; a valued Secretary of the Zoological Society from 1992 to 1999, and Editor of the Royal Society’s Proceedings (B) from 1998 to 2004.  A wise, gentle, unassuming, brilliant man, he will be greatly missed.


Category: Spotlight on Members